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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Saving Time

Air Date: Week of

Twice a year, much of the country changes its clocks, for the most part, without question. But, as writer Michael Downing finds, the reason we have daylight saving time is not for the farmers and schoolchildren, but for golf. Guest host Bruce Gellerman talks with Downing about his new book, "Spring Forward: The Annual Madness of Daylight Saving Time."


GELLERMAN: Joining me to discuss saving time is Michael Downing. He teaches creative writing at Tufts University and his new book is named for that memorable mnemonic. It's called "Spring Forward: The Annual Madness of Daylight Saving Time." Michael, hello!

DOWNING: Hello. I'm happy to be here, Bruce.

GELLERMAN: It's not "daylight savings time." I've been saying it wrong all these many years.

DOWNING: You're in very good company. It tells us something that even the name of the idea confuses us. People confuse it with a savings account, as if we're actually saving something. But the truth is, if daylight saving is anything, it's a tremendously effective spending account.

GELLERMAN: How's that?

DOWNING: Well, it turns out that the one thing daylight saving does do is it forces people out of their houses and when Americans go out of their houses, as the golf and barbecue industry know, they spend money.

GELLERMAN: And, this was or became about money. It wasn't until, basically, just before World War I that the United States adopts daylight saving time.

DOWNING: That's right. The idea comes from 1907 in London with William Willet who is an architect, but importantly to this story, he's a golfer. And, he's riding through town and notices that at sunrise people have their curtains closed. He thinks if instead of that hour coming in the morning of daylight, you gave it to people in the evening they wouldn't block it out, they'd spend it. This idea gets really popular, however, right around the beginning of World War I. And, the British think they can maybe use it to save some energy. That's the beginning of the confusion. That's how it comes to America; World War I trying to save some energy.

GELLERMAN: And, does it do that?

DOWNING: It doesn't probably do much of that. Here's what it does tremendously effectively: it shifts the time people ask for energy, so it alters peak load demand and that's very useful during a wartime economy. But, in truth, for about five years before World War I, the Chamber of Commerce, on behalf of big department stores in the cities, were pressing President Wilson to give us daylight saving.

GELLERMAN: Well, in Boston, actually, Filenes, Filenes Basement, he says "save an hour of light and spend an hour at night," something like that?

DOWNING: That was exactly the deal. Lincoln Filene understood that if workers left work while it was still bright outside, they would walk past his department store, see the windows lit up with daylight, walk in and spend something on the retail goods inside. He was right. He was one of the principle proponents in America.

GELLERMAN: So, what's the beef that farmers have with it?

DOWNING: Well, you know, farmers got stuck with this one problem--they actually used morning sunlight, unlike any other Americans. They weren't blocking it out. Let's say they had three hours to get their eggs, milk and produce to market in the cities. You turn the clocks ahead, the next year they have two hours to do the exact same amount of work. It's a terrible problem for farmers.

GELLERMAN: But it wasn't because the cows got up early and they couldn't give milk.

DOWNING: No, actually the farmers like to tell Congress that their animals couldn't actually tell time so this clock manipulation wasn't serving them in any way whatsoever.

GELLERMAN: But Wilson loves the idea. In fact, he gets it decided into law twice (laughter).

DOWNING: Wilson, like many presidents who followed him, was a big fan of the Chamber of Commerce because those department stores were the biggest economic force in America. But because the farmers were so opposed and they weren't alone, right after the war ends, two years of daylight saving, the Congress hates daylight saving so much it forces Wilson to repeal it.

GELLERMAN: And they hate it because?

DOWNING: Well, they hate it because the farmers hate it, the fundamentalist preachers and the religious right in this country consider it an offense against God. They feel they have taken the country off God's time onto clock time.

GELLERMAN: Now, God's time was standard time.

DOWNING: Well, that's the problem. God's time, in the mind of people who use that phrase, really is sun time but by 1883 most Americans were off of sun time because the railroads had put us on standard time. But, here's the funny story of standard time that dovetails here. Congress didn't enact standard time for 35 years, the railroads just imposed it as a commercial necessity on the country so people didn't think of it as a federal government involvement in time as they did with daylight saving.

GELLERMAN: And, in fact, today what we call standard time actually is not standard. Standard time is daylight saving time because there's more months of daylight saving time.

DOWNING: We right now, as a result of the 1986 extension, we have seven months of daylight saving in this country and Congress is now pressing to give us nine. Apparently, they can't get enough of it.

GELLERMAN: Why don't they just go to a whole year?

DOWNING: Well, you know, Richard Nixon tried that. Even though he was a tremendously famous opponent of daylight saving time, Nixon in '74 did to try to extend the effects of the OPEC oil embargo, put the country on all-year daylight saving and it was a total disaster. Within a week, here's what happened: places like, let's say Michigan, have sunrise times in the winter months which are about 7:30 in the morning. Well, if you turn the clocks ahead, now you've got an 8:30 sunrise time and you've got school children going out on dark, traffic-y streets. One or two bus accidents was enough to turn the country against all-year daylight saving. That's what Congress is essentially proposing now and I think that if it goes into effect, we're going to hear a big, hew and cry.

GELLERMAN: I thought this was a bipartisan bill and that it was a no-brainer and it was going to go through.

DOWNING: Well, the House has passed it and it is absolutely bipartisan, as was the extension in 1986. The idea is what we're now hearing from Congressmen is that it now saves as much as 10,000 barrels of oil a day. But moving the clock the way we do in the winter months tends to increase the demand for home heating oil. It also reliably increases the amount of gasoline people use because when you give more Americans more time of light at night, they get into their cars. So, the saving property is very, very debatable and, clearly, it does not cut down on traffic accidents.

GELLERMAN: So, it was about money?

DOWNING: Absolutely, it was about money. Who profited in 1986 when we went from six to seven months? Well, the barbecue industry figured it stood to make 100 to 150 million dollars extra by the extension of daylight saving. The golf industry--200 to 400 million dollars. Golf is the last sport that we cannot illuminate. Golf courses are too big to be lit up at night. So they really profit by having extra daylight saving at the end of the day. People can get in 18 holes after a day of work. I think the reason we see the extensions of daylight saving is really that money not only makes men bold, but it tends to make them bipartisan.

GELLERMAN: So, Einstein was correct.

DOWNING: (laughter) Everything's relative as long as we keep playing with our clocks.

GELLERMAN: Michael Downing's new book is called "Spring Forward: The Annual Madness of Daylight Saving Time." Thank you very much, Michael.

DOWNING: This was a pleasure, Bruce.



Spring Forward: The Annual Madness of Daylight Saving Time


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